While his alleged kidnapper was away at work, teenager Shawn Hornbeck apparently had access to a computer and may have put photos of himself online and posted a chilling message on a site created by his own desperate parents: “How long are you planning to look for your son?”
A series of Web postings under the name “Shawn Devlin” — Devlin is the last name of the man suspected of kidnapping Shawn and posing as his father — came to light after Shawn’s rescue from an apartment in Kirkwood last week.
Investigators would not comment on the postings, and it was not immediately known if they were, in fact, created by Shawn. But if so, they add to the long list of clues that no one seemed to pick up on during the 4½ years after the boy vanished.
They also deepen the mystery of why Shawn apparently made no attempt to escape or notify authorities.
Shawn, now 15, was 11 when he was kidnapped in 2002 while riding his bike near his rural home. Astonished police found him Friday in a suburban St. Louis apartment where they also discovered 13-year-old Ben Ownby, who had been missing for four days.
Their alleged abductor, Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizza shop employee who also held a job answering telephones at night at a funeral home, was jailed on $1 million bail. So far, he is charged only in the kidnapping of Ben, but authorities also plan to charge him with abducting Shawn.
As yet, no motive, no details
Investigators have given no motive for the crime and no details on what the boys went through. Officials said Devlin did not appear to have a criminal record.
Devlin’s attorney, Michael Kielty, said he has not seen any evidence and will enter a not guilty plea at his arraignment later this week.
During his captivity, Shawn may have offered clues on the Web that went overlooked.
At 1:59 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2005, someone using the name “Shawn Devlin” asked in a forum on the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation Web site: “How long are you planing (sic) to look for your son?” Shawn’s parents, Craig and Pam Akers, started the foundation to help find their son and other missing youngsters.
Later that same day, at 2:56 p.m., Shawn Devlin wrote to ask if he could compose a poem for the family. The poem never appeared in future postings.
Several Web profiles also appeared to be of Shawn. One, on mindviz.com, described a Shawn from St. Louis as a white atheist with a pet cat. A Web page created on Yahoo in 2004 carried a photo of a youngster who resembled Shawn, though with shorter hair. The youngster had an eyebrow piercing. The day after Shawn was found, he appeared in public with a lip ring and three ear piercings.
A separate Yahoo profile was taken out under the name Shawn Devlin in November 2005. It, too, contains a picture resembling Shawn; the page said the user lived in Kirkwood.
Shawn’s stepfather, Craig Akers, has said that during Shawn’s captivity, he did not attend school. Some neighbors also noticed that they never saw Shawn with books or a backpack.
Krista Jones, a stay-at-home mom who lives in the same apartment complex, noticed Shawn wearing black clothes and piercings in his ear and lip. “I figured maybe he’s just a dropout,” or thought he attended an alternative school, she said.
She said that a few months ago, she saw Devlin showing Shawn how to drive Devlin’s pickup. A short time later, she saw Shawn driving the truck with another boy, Tony Douglas, beside him. Missouri law allows 15-year-olds to drive, but only if an adult is with them.
Tony’s brother, Larry, said Tony often went skateboarding and biking with Shawn and had no idea of Shawn’s real identity. Larry Douglas said his brother was not being allowed to speak to the media.
Larry Douglas said his brother used to live in the same apartment complex as Devlin and Shawn before recently moving.
“They were best friends,” Douglas said. “They went everywhere together.”
Tony sometimes spent the night at Shawn’s apartment, but rarely spoke with Devlin. Larry Douglas said his brother saw no indication of abuse, or clues that Shawn was a captive.
“He just hopes to see his friend again,” Douglas said. “He’s happy for Shawn.”
Kevin Schroeder, sheriff in Washington County, said that Devlin owned a piece of vacant property in Washington County, about 20 minutes from where Shawn was seized in the rural community of Richwoods.
“It’s a connection — I would definitely say so,” Schroeder said.
Ben Ownby was also abducted from a small town, Beaufort, in neighboring Franklin County. Both Beaufort and Richwoods are about an hour from Kirkwood.
Ben’s abduction on Jan. 8 immediately caught the sheriff’s attention because of similarities to Shawn’s case.
“The main thing was the physical description of Ben,” Schroeder said. “Their height, their weight, the age. They were both taken from rural communities. So many aspects of it were surprisingly similar.”
Two Kirkwood police officers were at the apartment complex Thursday on unrelated business when they spotted a white, rusted Nissan pickup truck that matched the description of the truck seen speeding away after Ben’s abduction.
That Shawn had so many ways, and chances, to contact police or others has confounded relatives and friends.
Rick Butler, who lives across the street from the apartment, said that last fall he found a cell phone outside Devlin’s apartment. Butler called a number on it and Shawn came to Butler’s apartment to retrieve it.
“Thanks a lot for the phone,” Butler recalled the boy saying.
A spokeswoman for Shawn’s family declined interview requests on Monday. Lloyd Bailie, Ben’s uncle, said on CBS that Ben was talking about the ordeal only with his FBI counselors.
“No one’s pushing him at this point to answer these questions,” Bailie said. “The biggest concern right now is all of the media coverage ... that somebody’s going to ask the wrong question.”
Michael Popkin of Atlanta, author of the book “Active Parenting,” said how the boys recover depends in part on what they went through during their captivity. He said it was not surprising that Shawn had seemingly adapted to life with his kidnapper.
“What happens is that you’re dependent on your captor for your survival needs, for your safety,” Popkin said. “You can start identifying with them if they show kindness and win you over.”